Archive for April 21st, 2009
Lions squad set to be announced
Ireland lock Paul O’Connell will be unveiled as British and Irish Lions captain for this summer’s tour of South Africa at 1330 BST on Tuesday.
At a Heathrow hotel, head coach Ian McGeechan will announce the 36-man squad to face the world champions.
The party will leave for the 10-match tour, which includes Tests in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg, on 24 May – a day after the Heineken Cup final.
Ireland’s skipper Brian O’Driscoll was the other contender for the captaincy.
But McGeechan, 61, has opted for the 29-year-old Munster captain, following in the paths of Lions legends Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson as skippers in South Africa.
McBride led the 1974 ‘Invincibles’ on their unbeaten tour of the country, one of two Lions trips McGeechan featured in as a player.
The Scot has since featured in four parties as a coach, including the Lions’ last visit to South Africa, when he chose Johnson as captain for the victorious 1997 tour.
On that occasion McGeechan said he opted for Johnson as a “physical presence to knock on the Springboks’ dressing room door and intimidate them”, although Johnson himself believes that was a “bit of kidology”.
O’Connell, one of six players to start all three Lions Tests in New Zealand four years ago, has been in superb form for Munster and Ireland this season.
There was some doubt about his captaincy hopes when he criticised Wales coach Warren Gatland, who will be the Lions forwards coach, following Ireland’s Grand Slam-clinching victory in Cardiff in March.
O’Connell was upset with Gatland’s pre-match claim that the Welsh players despised their Irish counterparts more than any others, suggesting the New Zealander needed to keep his ego in check.
But the pair spoke in the days after the match and Lions tour manager Gerald Davies said the row is over.
No player other than the captain will be informed of his selection in advance, so leading candidates from the four home nations have an anxious wait before McGeechan finalises the final party.
The Wasps director of rugby was understood to have decided on 30 of his squad ahead of last weekend, before inking in the final names.
Six Nations Grand Slam champions Ireland are set to have the largest representation and could surpass their record of 11 they provided for Sir Clive Woodward’s bloated 45-man squad to New Zealand.
Magners League leaders and Heineken Cup semi-finalists Munster look set to have the largest contingent from one club.
The record number of players from one club on a Lions tour is eight, held by Newport for the 1910 tour, and Leicester in 2005.
Once the squad is finalised, tour manager Gerald Davies insists every member of the party will start off on an equal footing in the fight for Test places.
“Every player who goes on the tour must believe he has a chance of getting into the Test team,” stated Davies, a Test Lion in 1971.
“That’s the raison d’être for any competitor. Take that opportunity away and you take a lot of meaning from the player.
“There will be hard decisions on the tour, which every player must accept, but they must believe they have a chance, otherwise why should they be there?”
UK far down youth wellbeing table
A table of young people’s wellbeing in 29 European states – the EU plus Norway and Iceland – has ranked Britain 24th.
The Netherlands was top while only Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta came lower than the UK.
The table, about youngsters aged up to 19, was compiled by York University researchers for the Child Poverty Action Group using mostly 2006 data.
The government commented that its policies were lifting more than a million children out of poverty.
The researchers assessed the countries on 43 separate measures, ranging from infant mortality and obesity to material resources – like poverty and housing.
Also included were how children felt about their lives, schools and relationships.
Feeling pressured by schoolwork, for example, fed into the measurement of “subjective wellbeing”.
The study suggests little improvement since a similar report by Unicef two years ago, BBC correspondent James Westhead said.
The Netherlands led overall and was also in the upper third of the table in each area. Scandinavian countries dominated.
The UK’s rank of 24th was well below the position which might be expected given its affluence, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) report said.
Britain’s best score, 15th, was in children’s relationships – including how easy they say they find it to talk to their parents and get on with their classmates.
On material resources, the UK was 24th out of the 26 countries for which data was available.
“The UK position is particularly influenced by the high number of children living in families where no parent works. Only Lithuania and Poland do worse,” said the report.
CPAG is not arguing against government policy focusing on income growth for the poorest families and the impact of public services.
But it says the current recession means many families are threatened with rapid income falls.
“There is nothing inevitable about the UK doing badly on child wellbeing,” it says.
“The challenge should be to reverse this situation and put children front and centre of policy making.”
Looking beyond 2010, the charity has a series of recommendations:
Protect jobs, remove barriers to work such as unsuitable and expensive childcare.
Mend the “safety net” which it says leaves many families struggling well below the official poverty line.
Drop means tests in favour of universal benefits such as child benefit.
Stop in-work poverty from low wages.
End the “classroom divide” in which children growing up in poverty have lower attainment.
Provide fair public services for those who need them most.
End “poverty premiums” which mean poor families pay more for basic goods, utilities and services and more of their income in taxes.
Ensure a decent home for every family.
CPAG says that as most of the data in the report is from three years ago – which is not unusual in international comparisons – many recent government policy initiatives are not fully reflected.
“The figures should therefore be read as a criticism of UK society, but not necessarily of recent social policy,” it stresses.
England’s children’s minister, Beverley Hughes, added that the fact that a government department had been created to focus on children, schools and families showed the increased importance being given to children.
“Our Children’s Plan is our long term vision and it puts children and families at the centre of everything government does,” she said.
“Our policies have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty and halved absolute poverty. Policies announced in the last two years will lift around a further 500,000 children out of poverty.
“We are very proud that the majority of our children are happy and do well but in those cases where children and their families face problems, we will continue to invest in high quality services which provide the vital help and support that they need.”
The CPAG report follows a BBC Newsround survey of 1,000 children around the UK.
Many were worried about money, bullying and knife crime – but most nevertheless said they were happy.
16 Czech Republic
24 United Kingdom
Source: Child Poverty Action Group
Rate cut by Indian central bank
The Indian central bank has cut a key interest rate as it aims to boost the economy, which is slowing in the face of the global economic recession.
The repo rate – at which the Reserve Bank of India injects short-term money into the banking system – was cut by a quarter percentage point to 4.75%.
The move came as the central bank said it expected economic growth to slow to 6% in the current financial year.
This is down from a revised 6.5% for the 12 months to 31 March.
The Reserve Bank of India has now cut the repo rate six times since last October in attempt to boost the economy.
Analysts said the reduction was largely expected.
“The RBI has delivered a token 25 basis points rate cut, essentially signalling to banks to lower their lending rates further,” said Nomura economist Sonal Varma.
Tesco achieves 3bn annual profit
The supermarket chain Tesco has reported underlying annual pre-tax profits of 3.13bn, an improvement of 10% on the previous year.
Its sales topped 1bn a week for the first time with group revenue coming in at 54.3bn.
The boss of Tesco said that he was confident the retailer “will continue to make good progress even in the current global economic environment”.
The profits were the highest on record for a UK retailer.
‘Quiet Sun’ baffling astronomers
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News
The Sun is the dimmest it has been for nearly a century.
There are no sunspots, very few solar flares – and our nearest star is the quietest it has been for a very long time.
The observations are baffling astronomers, who are due to study new pictures of the Sun, taken from space, at the UK National Astronomy Meeting.
The Sun normally undergoes an 11-year cycle of activity. At its peak, it has a tumultuous boiling atmosphere that spits out flares and planet-sized chunks of super-hot gas. This is followed by a calmer period.
Last year, it was expected that it would have been hotting up after a quiet spell. But instead it hit a 50-year year low in solar wind pressure, a 55-year low in radio emissions, and a 100-year low in sunspot activity.
According to Prof Louise Hara of University College London, it is unclear why this is happening or when the Sun is likely to become more active again.
“There’s no sign of us coming out of it yet,” she told BBC News.
“At the moment, there are scientific papers coming out suggesting that we’ll be going into a normal period of activity soon.
“Others are suggesting we’ll be going into another minimum period – this is a big scientific debate at the moment.”
In the mid-17th Century, a quiet spell – known as the Maunder Minimum – lasted 70 years, and led to a “mini ice-age”.
This has resulted in some people suggesting that a similar cooling might offset the impact of climate change.
According to Prof Mike Lockwood of Southampton University, this view is too simplistic.
“I wish the Sun was coming to our aid but, unfortunately, the data shows that is not the case,” he said.
Prof Lockwood was one of the first researchers to show that the Sun’s activity has been gradually decreasing since 1985, yet overall global temperatures have continued to rise.
“If you look carefully at the observations, it’s pretty clear that the underlying level of the Sun peaked at about 1985 and what we are seeing is a continuation of a downward trend (in solar activity) that’s been going on for a couple of decades.
“If the Sun’s dimming were to have a cooling effect, we’d have seen it by now.”
Evidence from tree trunks and ice cores suggest that the Sun is calming down after an unusually high point in its activity.
Professor Lockwood believes that as well as the Sun’s 11-year cycle, there is an underlying solar oscillation lasting hundreds of years.
He suggests that 1985 marked the “grand maximum” in this long-term cycle and the Maunder Minimum marked its low point.
“We are re-entering the middle ground after a period which has seen the Sun in its top 10% of activity,” said Professor Lockwood.
“We would expect it to be more than a hundred years before we get down to the levels of the Maunder Minimum.”
He added that the current slight dimming of the Sun is not going to reverse the rise in global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
“What we are seeing is consistent with a global temperature rise, not that the Sun is coming to our aid.”
Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows global average temperatures have risen by about 0.7C since the beginning of the 20th Century.
And the IPCC projects that the world will continue to warm, with temperatures expected to rise between 1.8C and 4C by the end of the century.
No-one knows how the centuries-long waxing and waning of the Sun works. However, astronomers now have space telescopes studying the Sun in detail.
According to Prof Richard Harrison of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire, this current quiet period gives astronomers a unique opportunity.
“This is very exciting because as astronomers we’ve never seen anything like this before in our lifetimes,” he said.
“We have spacecraft up there to study the Sun in phenomenal detail. With these telescopes we can study this minimum of activity in a way that we could not have done so in the past.”
Asian stocks fall on bank fears
Asian shares have fallen sharply in Tuesday trading, echoing declines in the US caused by renewed concerns about the health of the world’s banks.
In afternoon trading in Tokyo, Japan’s main Nikkei index was down 2.6%, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng had lost 3.5%.
The declines were sparked by Bank of America, the largest in the US, reporting a big increase in the amount of funds it needs to cover bad debt.
This has reignited fears that there may be more losses in the banking sector.
The share falls in Japan and Hong Kong were led by banking stocks, and came after Wall Street’s main Dow Jones index ended Monday trading down 3.6%.
Shares in Bank of America ended Monday down 24%, while rival Citigroup gave up 18%.
The declines also came after President Barack Obama said at the weekend that the economy remained under strain.
Analyst Hideyuki Ishiguro said investors were now “wondering if banks are really all right”.
“But even amid these worries there are some signs of improvement in the real economy, especially in China, and this will prevent sharp selling,” he added.
Observers say investors are worried that some institutions may need to raise additional capital to cope with future losses, a move that would potentially further dilute the stakes of existing shareholders.
Bank of America said on Monday that it had set aside 13.4bn (9.2bn) to cover credit losses in the first three months of 2009, up from the 8.5bn figure given in the fourth quarter of last year.
This overshadowed figures showing its net income had risen to 4.2bn in the first three months of 2009 from 1.2bn a year earlier, beating analysts’ expectations.
The results were inflated by its purchases of Merrill Lynch, which added 3.7bn in net income, and Countrywide, which boosted its mortgage arm.
Meanwhile, shares of Citigroup were hit after Goldman Sachs analysts said credit losses at the bank had continued to grow rapidly.
UN condemns military rule in Fiji
The United Nations Security Council has condemned the Fijian military regime’s repeal of the constitution and delay of elections to 2014.
It said these were “undemocratic decisions” and “a step backwards.”
Fiji’s military ruler Frank Bainimarama overthrew elected government in 2006, and promised reforms.
Last week, after a court ruled his government was illegal, he sacked the judiciary and was reinstated as leader under emergency regulations.
“The members of the Security Council are deeply concerned about the situation in Fiji, where undemocratic decisions were made, including the abrogation of the constitution,” said Mexico’s ambassador to the United Nations Claude Heller, who presides over the council this month.
“The members of the Security Council express hopes that Fiji will make a steadfast advancement towards democracy and that fair elections will be held as soon as possible,” Mr Heller told reporters.
The Australian and New Zealand governments have said Fiji has effectively become a military dictatorship and have called for the restoration of democracy.
Mr Bainimarama insists his rule is legitimate.
Sri Lanka army accused of carnage
A Tamil Tiger spokesman has accused the Sri Lankan government of shelling civilians and wreaking carnage during its military offensive in the north.
The government has denied the allegations, in turn accusing the rebel group of targeting civilians.
The army has said at least 25,000 civilians have fled the Tamil Tiger-held area.
The rebels have so far rejected government calls to surrender, or face a final assault.
The rebel spokesman, who gave his name as Thileepan, spoke to the BBC by telephone with the sound of explosions in the background.
He said a hospital, an orphanage and many houses had been hit and huge numbers of civilians had been killed in a military onslaught of the area.
He said people had been reduced to hiding under logs and trees and using makeshift bunkers dug into the sand.
The Sri Lankan military has denied shelling civilians inside the rebel-held area.
Army spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told the BBC that only small-arms had been used.
He said the Tigers were targeting civilians because they knew that if non-combatants left, the rebels would be “sitting ducks”.
The army says three rebel suicide bombings had targeted fleeing civilians, killing 17.
One Tamil man who had just left the conflict zone said the rebels tried to shoot anyone planning to escape.
Local newspapers are covered with pictures of large numbers of people leaving rebel territory, says the BBC’s Charles Haviland in Colombo.
One calls the process a “human avalanche”.
People escaped after troops broke through a fortification which had been blocking their advance into the Tigers’ last stronghold, the army said on Monday.
Aerial video showed thousands of people filing out of the combat zone. Tens of thousands remain in the area, which has seen heavy fighting for months.
The pro-rebel TamilNet website said several hundred civilians were feared killed and injured after troops advanced into the zone.
Each side accuses the other of killing civilians in the long running civil conflict.
Foreign reporters are not allowed into the combat zone, making it impossible to independently verify the claims.
The Tigers are restricted to a 20 sq km (12.4 sq miles) coastal patch that the government has designated a “safe zone” for civilians.
Gordon Weis, the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, said it was not known how many civilians remained there but that the UN had been working off a figure of some 150,000 to 200,000 people in recent months.
Our correspondent says life for the Tamil civilians in the zone is a nightmare.
There has been shelling for months, while the UN says the Tigers are preventing people from escaping, despite rebel denials.
The government is not giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to the landward side of the zone.
So it can only evacuate people by sea, with two or three ships per week each carrying 400 or 500 of the sickest, oldest and most badly wounded people.
‘Teenage pirate’ arrives in US
A Somali teenager accused of being one of the pirates who held an American sea captain hostage has been flown from Africa to the US to face trial.
Abde Wale Abdul Kadhir Muse is the first person to be tried in the US on piracy charges in more than a century, the Associated Press news agency says.
He was held over the seizure off Somalia of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship.
Earlier, his mother appealed to US President Barack Obama to free him.
Adar Abdurahman Hassan told the BBC her son was innocent and just 16 years old.
While her son was allegedly negotiating on a US warship, naval snipers shot dead three pirates holding the captain.
Mrs Hasan said she wanted to be present in court if the case goes ahead.
She said her son had been missing for two weeks prior to the hijacking and she only realised he had been implicated when she heard his name in a radio report.
The teenager is accused of being a member of the pirate gang which boarded the container ship on 8 April and took Capt Phillips hostage in a lifeboat.
The standoff ended on the fifth day while her son was aboard a US warship allegedly demanding a ransom when US Navy marksmen killed three of the pirates.
Mrs Hassan told the BBC’s Somali service: “I am requesting the American government, I am requesting President Obama to release my child. He has got nothing to do with the pirates’ crime.
“He is a minor. He is under age and he has been used for this crime. I also request from the US, if they choose to put him on trial, I want them to invite me there.”
On Sunday, the weak, internationally recognised Somali government said captured pirates could face the death penalty.
But the Horn of Africa nation has been without an effective administration since 1991, fuelling the lawlessness which has allowed piracy to thrive.
Shipping companies last year handed over about 80m (54m) in ransom payments to the gangs.
Venezuela mayor misses court date
One of Venezuela’s main opposition leaders has failed to appear in court on the first day of his trial on corruption charges.
Manuel Rosales, who ran against President Hugo Chavez in the last presidential election in 2006, is reportedly seeking asylum abroad.
He says the charges are politically motivated and has been in hiding since they were lodged last month.
His party has accused the authorities of using the case for political means.
Mr Rosales, who is mayor of Venezuela’s second biggest city, Maracaibo, is facing multi-million dollar corruption charges relating to his time as the governor of Zulia state.
“He won’t present himself before a court that’s been turned into a political tool,” said Omar Barboza, the president of Mr Rosales’ party.
“When there’s a state of law in Venezuela, Manuel Rosales will then go before the courts, but until then he will be judged by the Venezuelan people.”
Mr Barboza added that the party had begun the process of requesting political asylum for Mr Rosales in an unspecified “friendly country”.
But the Venezuelan government said the disappearance of Mr Rosales was cowardly.
It said he was currently in Panama or Colombia.
Koreas hold first talks in a year
North and South Korea are preparing to hold their first official talks for more than a year.
Neither side has said what they plan to discuss at the meeting, which was requested by North Korea.
The talks are being held at the Kaesong joint industrial zone, a factory complex built with South Korean money but located inside the North.
Pyongyang, which has been toughening its rhetoric in recent days, said it wanted to deliver an important message.
The BBC’s john Sudworth in Seoul says it is all that is left of the big, liberal-era economic co-operation projects championed by the two previous governments in the South.
Since a conservative administration, with less appetite for unconditional aid, took over in Seoul last February, the North has cut off all official communication in protest.
‘Act of war’
Tuesday’s talks though have been called by the North because it says it has an important announcement to make concerning the industrial zone. It has given no further details.
Our correspondent says that recent days North Korea has been turning up its angry rhetoric, reminding South Korea that its capital Seoul is just 50 km (30 miles) from the border – well within artillery range.
It has been angered by South Korea’s plans to join a US-led initiative to track and stop ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea may want to use the meeting to raise further protests about such a move, which it says would constitute “an act of war”, our correspondent says.
Some observers have suggested that it may want to raise the fate of a South Korean worker currently in its custody.
The man was detained at the joint industrial zone three weeks ago on suspicion of denouncing the North’s political system.
Baby resuscitation ‘linked to IQ’
Children resuscitated at birth are more likely to have a low IQ by the age of eight, even if they appear healthy as babies, research has suggested.
The study compared babies who were resuscitated at birth – some needing further care, but others not – with those who had a problem-free delivery.
It suggests even mild problems around delivery may be enough to cause subtle damage to the brain.
The study, by Bristol’s Southmead Hospital, appears in the Lancet.
It is based on children who were part in a long-term research project known as the Children of the 90s study.
The researchers defined a low IQ as being less than 80.
They found that children who were resuscitated, but required no further treatment, had a 65% increased risk of a low IQ compared with those who were not.
The risk of a low IQ for children who were resuscitated and also required further treatment for signs of brain damage, known as encephalopathy, was six times higher than babies delivered without any problem.
Damage caused during labour is due to the brain being starved of oxygen, a phenomenon known as hypoxia.
Overall the risk of a low IQ for any of the children was still relatively low.
But writing in The Lancet, the researchers said: “Infants who needed resuscitation, even if they did not develop encephalopathy in the neonatal period, had a substantially increased risk of a low full-scale IQ score.
“The data suggest that mild perinatal physiological compromise might be sufficient to cause subtle neuronal or synaptic (nerve cell junction) damage, and thereby affect cognition in childhood and potentially in adulthood.”
In an accompanying editorial US experts Professor Maureen Hack and Professor Eileen Stork, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the study suggested that better ways were needed to assess whether resuscitation was likely to have a long-term effect on a new-born baby.
These might include biochemical tests, and brain scans.
Andy Cole, of special care baby charity Bliss, said the study was interesting, but did not prove any direct link between resuscitation and low IQ.
He said: “When a very ill baby requires resuscitation there are usually a range of factors at play, including prenatal conditions, the health of the baby at birth, as well as the mother’s health.
“It is also important to note that this research is looking at babies born in the early 1990s, and that current resuscitation practices have much improved over the past 15 years.
“The findings may well not be applicable to babies born today.”
Professor Andrew Shennan, from Tommy’s, the baby charity, said infections contracted by women during pregnancy might be a significant factor contributing to the problems.
He said the study showed that rates of maternal infection were significantly higher in the group with low IQ.
Maternal infections raise the risk of premature birth, which in turn is associated with a higher risk of problems during delivery.
Homeless struggle in Atlantic City
By Matthew Price
BBC News, New York
It is wet, windy, and cold when I arrive in Atlantic City.
So dreary in fact that the tall downtown casinos on which this city’s economy is built remain hidden by the drizzle until my car is almost right up alongside them.
The rain drips off the noses of the fake Roman statues at Caesar’s Palace casino complex.
Atlantic City is suffering, and not just because of the weather.
Cristina Sanford knows that only too well. She is 21 years old, and already has three children.
Last September she lost her job as a cleaner.
She spent several hundred dollars on training to become a casino card dealer, but when her training had finished the recession was in full swing and the casinos were cutting back.
She gets 424 (292) a month in cash from social security and 584 a month in food stamps but her rent was 900 a month.
So she’s now homeless, and relies on the Atlantic City Rescue Mission for a place to stay.
Does she see any sign that things are getting better?
“No I don’t. I think it’s getting worse. Everybody’s getting laid off.”
Homelessness is rising across the United States. According to the US Conference of Mayors, 25 of the largest cities here reported an average 12% increase in homelessness in 2008 compared to 2007.
In 16 cities there were more homeless families. A lack of affordable housing, poverty and unemployment all contributed to the problem.
On top of that, those who try to help the homeless are suffering.
Bill Southrey runs the Atlantic City Mission where Cristina Sanford is staying. He says the organisation is already about 46,000 behind in donations this year.
Their stock-market investments have also lost value. “We’re not at crisis at this point, but it could all vanish in an instant,” says Mr Southrey.
It is not, however, just the vulnerable who are in trouble.
“My wife and I live pay-check to pay-check,” Stephen Irish tells me. He is one of a growing number of middle class Americans who are experiencing economic difficulties.
He and his wife have no children, but they have five jobs. Their combined income is 60,000 a year.
“We’re struggling,” he says.
Mr Irish teaches public relations, management, and marketing in New Jersey. He believes one of the problems has been America’s desire for short-term riches.
The students would “take a six week real estate course, rather than a long term education. They wanted ‘make-a-lot-of-money’ careers.”
One of the big problems in Atlantic City is that it relies on one industry – gambling.
Betting on betting is fine in the good times, but when things turn sour, the system declines.
The area is trying to diversify, to make Atlantic City a destination for tourists interested not just in gambling. Now is not a good time to try and change however.
Housing set for 1bn Budget boost
Chancellor Alistair Darling is expected to announce a 1bn package to support housing in Wednesday’s Budget.
The government is set to provide money for construction sites where work has stopped because of funding problems and for building council houses.
A stamp duty “holiday” on homes costing up to 175,000 will also be extended by three months to the end of the year.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the Budget will show how the UK will “grow” its way out of the recession.
Wednesday’s announcement will outline the government’s plans to “invest our way out of this downturn,” the prime minister said.
BBC News political correspondent Ross Hawkins says the government wants to see new houses built – and existing ones bought and sold – despite the recession.
A new announcement is anticipated on a scheme to turn unsold homes into social housing.
The Treasury will publish reports on Tuesday ahead of the Budget setting out how “efficiency savings” in Whitehall could help pay for some government spending plans.
One report will suggest government departments that fail to make savings could have funding taken away from them.
The chancellor told Labour MPs on Monday night the Budget would focus on providing jobs and helping industries that would be important in the future.
He is expected to reveal a rise in public borrowing, possibly up to 160bn, as tax revenues fall in the face of the recession.
Mr Darling is also to revise forecasts about how much the economy will contract this year from between 0.75% and 1.25% to between 3% and 3.5% – which would be the worst recession since 1945.
But the chancellor is expected to say the economy will return to growth next year and gain further strength in 2011.
On BBC Two’s Newsnight, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said borrowing was growing as a result of the recession but sustained public spending and investment in the economy were necessary.
But his Tory shadow Ken Clarke said he expected Mr Darling to announce that the UK had the “worst budget deficit in the G20″ on Wednesday.
While some borrowing would have to take place, it should not be borrowing for “political reasons”, he told the BBC.
Tuesday’s government reports are expected to say it is possible to make a further 10bn efficiency savings from Whitehall departments from 2011/12 – on top of the 5bn already pledged for 2010/11 – as Mr Darling tries to show how he intends to balance the public finances.
Other announcements on Wednesday may include a car scrapping scheme – in which people are paid to trade in older cars and buy new ones – a scheme for businesses struggling to get credit insurance and possible tax changes to help savers.
However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned that Mr Darling’s plan, announced in the pre-Budget report, to introduce a new 45% tax rate on earnings over 150,000 from April 2011 was “very unlikely” to raise the 1.6bn a year predicted.
The IFS predicted it would raise about 550m and could even cause tax revenues to fall if extra steps were not taken to reduce tax avoidance or discourage people from reducing their income.
The Treasury said it stuck by its forecasts which were based on “detailed work on tax revenues that the IFS would not have had access to”.
EU commission urges fishing cuts
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
The EU has far too many fishing boats, and major cuts are needed to make fishing sustainable, according to the European Commission.
The commission’s green paper on Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform also says fishermen should be given more responsibility for managing stocks.
A copy obtained by BBC News prior to publication on Wednesday says 30% of EU fish stocks are beyond safe limits.
It say member states “micro-manage” decisions for political reasons.
Despite major reforms in 2002, it concludes, the reality for EU fish and fishermen consists of “overfishing, fleet overcapacity, heavy subsidies, low economic resilience and decline in the volume of fish caught”.
Eighty-eight percent of EU stocks are fished beyond their maximum sustainable yield – the highest catch that can be maintained over an indefinite period – and for some, such as North Sea cod, the vast majority of fish are caught before they have reproduced.
Fishermen would end up richer, the commission concludes, by reducing catches until depleted stocked recover – but the system is set up to ensure short-term profits are the driving factor.
Many aspects of the commission’s analysis agree with the positions that environmental groups have taken down the years.
“Irrespective of any reform, a number of fishing fleets are two-three times the size needed to catch the available fish,” said Uta Bellion, director of the Pew Environment Group’s EU marine programme.
“Only by balancing fleet capacity with fishing opportunity can we secure a CFP that provides long-term socio-economic benefits.”
Across the EU, fleet capacity has come down, the commission says, but only about 2-3% per year. Meanwhile, technological improvements are making boats 2-3% more efficient every year – so the capacity reductions are having little effect.
The commission’s scientifically derived proposals on sustainable catch levels are routinely revised upwards when EU environment ministers meet, traditionally in late December, to set quotas for the year following.
Although fishermens’ groups often blame the commission for quotas they consider too low, the green paper argues that many member states have been guilty of seeking to maintain high quotas on depleted stocks for political reasons.
Falling stocks mean lower catches, and what the document describes as “a vicious circle of overfishing, overcapacity and low economic resilience (resulting in) high political pressure to increase short-term fishing opportunities at the expense of future sustainability of the industry”.
Without naming names, the paper’s wording makes it clear that the commission thinks some countries have a much better track record on this point than others.
The green paper recognises that achieving sustainable catch levels means working with fishermen, encouraging them to develop their own methods of sustainable management and creating incentives that promote a long-term perspective.
One option raised is expanding the use of transferable quotas, where fishermen “own” the right to fish for many years, so gaining from managing the stock sustainably.
SeaFish, the UK’s government-supported industry body, broadly welcomed the green paper.
“We are glad the commission recognises the fundamental issues that need to be tackled, in particular the urgent need for a solution to discards and the need for a level playing field across all member states,” said the organisation’s chief executive John Rutherford.
“We welcome… the opportunity it offers fishermen to become involved in the responsible management of fish stocks. We believe this proposal recognises the improved record of fishermen in terms of environmental responsibility in recent years.”
Among the commission’s other ideas are:
removing all remaining subsidies, such as cheap fuel
increasing the effectiveness of inspections and penalties for rule-breaking
differentiating between the rights of small-scale community-based coastal fishing boats and large industrial concerns
The commission is asking for comments and ideas on its green paper, and aims to bring a reformed CFP into existence by 2013.
Oxfam warns of climate disasters
The number of people hit by climate-related disasters is expected to rise by about 50%, to reach 375m a year by 2015, the UK-based charity Oxfam says.
Current humanitarian systems are barely able to cope, an Oxfam study contends.
It warns agencies are in danger of being overwhelmed by events such as flooding, storms and drought.
The group called for a radical shift so that humanitarian aid is sent impartially, instead of on the basis of political or other preferences.
Oxfam’s Rob Bailey told the BBC a big increase was needed in aid spending, but that the problem was not just about the amount of money.
“We need to see that money spent in better ways,” he said.
“At the moment, poor people in the developing world who are facing up to these disasters, they are almost facing a kind of lottery on a global scale.”
He said that in 2004, the equivalent of more than 1,200 (823) was spent on each victim of the Asian tsunami, compared with just 23 per person for the recent crisis in Chad.
“There’s a huge mismatch in where the money goes,” said Mr Bailey.
Oxfam is also calling for a greater focus on helping countries and communities to prevent, and prepare for the suffering that climate change will cause.
Can lunar cycles affect the taste of wine?
WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers…
Supermarkets are arranging wine tasting sessions around “good” and “bad” days as dictated by the lunar calendar. So does the Moon really change the taste of wine?
A German great-grandmother called Maria Thun is wielding huge influence on the British wine industry.
A calendar she first published in the 1950s categorises days as “fruit”, “flower”, “leaf” or “root”, according to the Moon and stars. Wine is best on fruit days, followed by flower, leaf and root days. The worst day is marked as “unfavourable” in the calendar. (See factbox below for forthcoming “good” and “bad” days).
Tesco and Marks & Spencer are the latest supporters of her philosophy. The two supermarkets have revealed that they have a policy of inviting critics to taste their wine only on days which the calendar says are favourable.
Her theory is that wine is a living organism that responds to the Moon’s rhythms in the same way that some people believe humans do. The so-called “lunar effect” has been widely dismissed as pseudo-science but its followers think that as the Moon exerts such a huge impact on the tides, it must follow that it affects the water in the human body and therefore human behaviour.
The belief that wine can taste different depending on the day it’s drunk is not as eccentric as it may sound. All wine experts tend to agree – although their theories on why vary.
Wine merchant David Motion has recently been won over to Maria Thun’s “biodynamic” calendar theory.
“We tried eight wines on Tuesday, which was a leaf day and then the same wines again on Thursday, which was a fruit day. And it was totally conclusive.
“It wasn’t that the wine tasted bad on the Tuesday but it was much more expressive on the Thursday. It was more exuberant and on-song. It was like the heavens opened, the clouds parted and the wine just expressed itself.”
The trial solved his long-standing puzzlement at why the same wine could taste so much better on certain days. From now on, he says, his wine shop in north London will only hold tasting sessions on fruit days.
The biodynamic calendar is part of the wider concept of biodynamic farming, pioneered by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. The philosophy is similar to organic farming but a key difference is that planting and sowing is timed according to the moon.
Biodynamic farming has itself had an influence on the growing industry – with some wine growers running their vineyards along these lines.
Despite its growing traction in viticulture there’s still much scepticism in the trade, with some scientists dismissing it as sorcery.
The resident wine expert at London’s Vinopolis, Tom Forrest, agrees it all sounds a “little bit like witchcraft”.
“But having thought about it and spoken to biodynamic wine producers, I’m more sure there is some sort of influence. Whether it’s a huge influence or not, I don’t know.”
The Moon can impact on a plant through changing water levels, he says, so there is something to be said for the way it can influence wine.
But Jamie Goode, a wine scientist and author of online magazine wineanorak, thinks too much is made of planetary alignments and the lunar calendar.
“But I’m not going to say it’s absolute nonsense. Wine tastes different on different days but the differences are not that huge and the differences are more about atmospheric pressure.
“And we are part of the equation when it comes to tasting wine. We are not measuring devices. The taste of the wine is something we generate in response to the wine.”
People taste wine with expectations, and part of that could be the knowledge that it is a “good” day for wine, he says. Mood also influences
There are other aspects of biodynamic farming that could explain why producers that switch to it from conventional methods tend to improve the quality of their wine, he says. And they have nothing to do with the Moon.
They don’t use pesticides, they compost, they till manually and they use other crops to create a more diverse eco-system.
Plans to cut traffic speed limits
Proposals to bring down speed limits in areas where there is a higher risk of accidents are expected to be announced by the government.
Reductions from 30mph to 20mph in urban locations and 60mph to 50mph in the countryside are being considered.
The measures are part of a new strategy to reduce road deaths in England and Wales through to 2020.
Places such as Newcastle, Portsmouth, Oxford and Leicester already use 20mph speed limits in residential areas.
Transport Minister Jim Fitzpatrick will seek views on targets to reduce the number of casualties on roads when he launches a consultation document on Tuesday.
Local councils will be given new guidance to cut speed limits in residential areas and outside schools to 20mph.
Ministers say they are on course to hit the government’s current target of cutting deaths and serious injuries on the roads by 40% by 2010.
A new target of reducing deaths by an additional third will be suggested for 2020.
There will also be a new section in the driving test where candidates will be asked to drive without being directed by the examiner.
Young learner drivers who opt to take a new pre-qualification course will be allowed to sit a shorter driving theory test.
Road safety researchers say only one in 40 people who are hit by a vehicle at 20mph die, compared with one in five at 30mph.
Robert Gifford, of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said: “The 20mph zones are proven to save lives and that is especially important when thinking about children and the elderly.”
Islam a political target in Norway
By Thomas Buch-Andersen
BBC News, Oslo
With less than six months to go until Norway’s general election, increasing tensions over immigration and Islam appear likely to play a significant role in the vote.
The leader of the country’s main opposition party has warned that it is facing “sneak-Islamisation”, while some prominent Muslims say they face growing “persecution”.
The heated debate is a sign that Norway, renowned as one of the most peaceful and tolerant nations in the world, is facing the same issues with its Muslim minority now familiar in other parts of Europe.
Siv Jensen, the 39-year-old leader of the opposition Progress Party, has objected to moves to introduce special measures in order to accommodate Muslims’ religious sensitivities, traditions and rules.
“The reality is that a kind of sneak-Islamisation of this society is being allowed,” she recently told a Progress Party conference. “We are going to have to stop this.”
Opinion polls suggest the party could win as much as 30% of the vote in the election for the national parliament, the Storting, in September.
“If the Progress Party gets to govern Norway, we will enforce Norwegian law and Norwegian rules. We are not going to allow special demands from any single group in society,” Ms Jensen added.
Khalid Mahmood, a Pakistani-born member of the governing Labour Party believes Muslims are being persecuted, and Islam confronted with hatred.
“Muslims are the Jews of our times, stigmatised, generalised and presented as a threat to society” he says.
“It is not any longer immigrants who are targeted, but simply Muslims”, he adds.
“We are portrayed as uncivilised people living double lives – orderly and behaved when in public, but at home fundamentalists suppressing and physically abusing women.”
Last month, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the racism watchdog of the Council of Europe, published a report warning that Islamophobia was on the rise in Norway.
Specifically, the commissioned highlighted the increasingly aggressive rhetoric of the Progress Party.
With an estimated 150,000 of Norway’s almost five million population being Muslims, Islam is the second-biggest religion in the country.
But while Norway was ranked the most peaceful country in the world by the World Peace Index in 2007, it is struggling to integrate its religious minorities without friction.
In some places, Islamic traditions still clash with the largely non-religious Scandinavian way of life.
Earlier this year, the Labour Party’s governing coalition suggested it would allow police officers to wear headscarves with their uniform, in the hope that it would attract more Muslim women the police force.
The success of the Progress Party has forced the ruling Labour Party to react
But after widespread criticism of the proposal, the government dropped the idea.
On International Women’s Day in March, Syrian-born Sara Azmeh Rasmussen protested against headscarves by burning hers in public in the capital, Oslo.
Ms Jensen’s party has produced a list of special measures it says Muslims have requested to accommodate their religious sensitivities and traditions.
On top of changes to police uniform, the list mentions inmates wanting Halal food served in prisons, and parents of teenage girls demanding schools separate their daughters from boys during sports lessons.
Most of her supporters say it is exactly her hardline stand against Islamic values and rules that make her their favourite candidate.
Some polls suggest that Ms Jensen’s party could win the election, and that she could become the country’s next prime minister – though to do so she would have to secure the support of other parties like the Conservatives, the Liberals and Christian Democrats.
The significant success of the Progress Party has forced the governing Labour Party to react.
Earlier this year, the government tightened asylum rules despite earlier pledges not to do so.
And last month, senior members of the Labour Party called for a fight against radical Islam in Norway.
However, the former prime minister and Labour Party leader, Thorbjoern Jagland, called it an unnecessary fight that would only lead to confrontation.
While he argued that it was empty rhetoric, saying there was no radical Islam in Norway, the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) insists radical Islam represents a threat.
“In Norway, extreme Islamist activity is carried out by small groups. However, the international connections the persons in these groups represent, in addition to activities they carry out, are such in nature that they can also influence that national threat picture,” it said in a recent report.
While the debate is getting more heated, not all Muslims agree with Mr Mahmood.
“Three to four articles critical of religion and burning of a headscarf is not persecution of Muslims, it is a process of modernising,” says Shakil Rehman, another Labour Party member.
“Criticism isn’t a smear campaign, but necessary progress.”
Is South Africa on the cusp of change?
By Peter Biles
BBC Southern Africa Correspondent
Jacob Zuma is one step away from the Union Buildings – South Africa’s seat of power.
Wednesday’s national and provincial elections are certain to see the African National Congress (ANC) leader become the new president of South Africa.
But this year’s elections have been different.
A new opposition party, hewn from the ruling African National Congress, is challenging their dominance.
Even if they can’t win this year, Cope (Congress of the People) may have altered the landscape of South African politics.
Columnist and academic Xolela Mangcu of Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University says the ANC has had to up its game since the emergence of Cope.
“They forced the ANC to go on the defensive, as was clear with the sheer volume of numbers they brought out to their final rallies on Sunday,” he said.
“The ANC have turned it around and re-energised themselves.”
Zuma’s ups and downs
Mr Zuma’s life has always been a rollercoaster ride.
My first encounter with him was in Tanzania in 1987, during his years in exile.
At that time, Mr Zuma and Thabo Mbeki (then the ANC’s Director of Information) appeared inseparable as ANC colleagues.
Mr Zuma subsequently became Chief of Intelligence for the ANC, but always seen destined to remain in Mr Mbeki’s shadow.
In 1999, at the start of his first administration, President Mbeki appointed Mr Zuma as his deputy.
However, in 2005, he was fired and later charged with corruption.
In the same year, he was accused of rape, but acquitted.
Nonetheless, many observers predicted that Mr Zuma would not be able to rebuild his political career.
Against the odds, and with the backing of powerful allies within the ANC, Mr Zuma staged a remarkable comeback.
Mr Mbeki, in contrast, has gone missing from this 2009 election campaign.
Since being forced by the ANC to resign as president in September 2008, little has been seen of him, except in his capacity as the chief mediator in Zimbabwe.
He has not thrown his weight behind the ANC election campaign.
Nor has he come out in support of Cope, whose core backing comes from many of Mr Mbeki’s former supporters.
This week, on the eve of the polls, the ANC was unable to say where Mr Mbeki would be casting his vote on Wednesday.
Issues not personalities
Politicians like to pretend that elections are about issues rather than personalities.
But even in South Africa, where there are no direct elections for president, this campaign has been dominated by the familiar faces on the political landscape.
Jacob Zuma’s portrait has been on election posters in every main street in the country.
In a sophisticated and expensive campaign, the ANC has ensured that Mr Zuma has enjoyed maximum exposure.
In recent months, he has been to all corners of South Africa, sometimes speaking at three or four events a day.
In spite of just having turned 67, Mr Zuma remains as energetic as ever.
He has swept into the final phase of this campaign with gusto, always delighting his supporters by singing the song that he has made his own -”Mshini Wami” (Bring Me My Machine Gun).
Not to be outdone, Helen Zille, the leader of the parliamentary opposition – the Democratic Alliance – has also adopted a song and dance routine.
Not to be outdone, Helen Zille has danced through the campaign
Ms Zille, who is Mayor of Cape Town, is contesting the position of Provincial Premier of the Western Cape.
The DA has been mounting a concerted effort to stop the ANC from once again securing a two-thirds majority, as it did in the 2004 elections.
Many say the real competition is between Cope and the DA to see which will become the biggest opposition.
They would have the upper hand in any coalition that may be negotiated between the two.
“I’m not sleeping long enough at night to recharge my mobile phone”, said a visibly tired Ms Zille, as she visited the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.
End of campaigning
Another leader who will welcome the end of campaigning is Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
At the age of 80, he is the only high profile political figure who has fought every election since 1994.
Both the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People are each set to win about 15% of the national vote, according to the latest opinion poll by Plus 94.
If Cope performs badly, questions will no doubt be asked about why the party chose to put forward a relatively unknown figure, Bishop Mvume Dandala, as its presidential candidate, instead of one of its two founder members – Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa.
South Africans will breathe a sigh of relief after the elections this week.
They will however, have to wait a while longer to find out just what kind of president Jacob Zuma will be.